Aunt Betty’s kitchen in Washington Heights, at the top of Manhattan, was impossibly small, Carol Becker, the owner of William Greenberg Desserts explains. Still, Betty served an endless parade of platters of Ashkenazi classics like homemade gefilte fish, stuffed cabbage, roast chicken and brisket. There were bowls of soup, both matzo ball and split pea, and for dessert, Carol’s favorite: cinnamon sugar butter horn cookies. The dishes of food coming out of the tiny kitchen were “Like clowns coming out of the clown car. I don’t know how she did it,” Carol explains.
The family arrived in New York from Iasi, Romania, around 1910. On the boat, Carol’s grandfather met the brother of the woman he would ultimately marry, named Sadie. She was one of 13 children, including Betty who was the youngest of the siblings. When Carol’s mother Adele was little, her mother Sadie passed away and she moved in with her grandmother Esther and later with Betty.
When Carol was little, living in the Bronx, visits to aunt Betty’s were treated as if they were visits to a grandmother. Betty would send Carol care packages when she was a college student at Syracuse. It was when she was at college that Carol started to ask her mom for Betty’s recipes. Her mom Adele cooked mostly American dishes but would call Betty and take down the recipes over the phone and then pass them on to Carol. “Aunt Betty told my mother: ‘So, I take a handful of this and a scoop of that.’ And my mother kind of figured it out and I played with the recipes.”
This was when Carol first tried to make the butter horns on her own and “they were a disaster,” she says. It took time and testing to recreate butter horns like Betty’s. Even today, they are hard to encapsulate, even for an expert baker like Carol, who purchased the bakery — known for its black and white cookies — nearly 12 years ago. Carol explains: “They’re not like rugelach, not like hamantaschen,” they are their own special treat.
But, not everyone agrees on what Betty’s were like. When Carol was working on her cookbook, The William Greenberg Desserts Cookbook: Classic Desserts from an Iconic New York City Bakery, she called a friend of Betty’s. “I asked him ‘How would you describe them?’ and we have totally different memories of them,” she says. They debated the shape and filling. “I don't know who was right,” she adds. So it can be with recipes that pass down from generation to generation. Still, they are a reminder of aunt Betty and the power of her tiny kitchen.